England’s Crisis

H.L. Mencken

Baltimore Evening Sun/December 8, 1910

The Liberals And Their Aims

 To understand the political situation in England it is necessary, first of all, to glance at the aims and platforms of the contending parties. The Liberals, who have been in power since 1905, may be compared, roughly, to the more violent Bryan Democrats of 1896 and 1900. That is to say, they are hospitable to every radical idea that bobs up in the land. They have put through in the last five years an old-age pension act which costs the nation $40,000,000 a year and an income tax which lays heavy burdens upon every man whose income is more than $1,500 a year. Many other quasi-socialistic measures are on their program, and because the House of Lords, which is perpetually Conservative, opposes this program, they propose to abolish that house, or at least to deprive it of most of its ancient privileges and prerogatives. Incidentally, they favor home rule for Ireland, or say they do.

The Unionist party is opposed to all these things. It is made up of two classes of Englishmen—the old-fashioned Tories and the man who seceded from the Liberal party in 1886, when Gladstone’s famous Home Rule bill split the party and carried it down to defeat. These seceders adopted the name of Unionists, and by that name the whole Conservative group is now known. The Unionists are against home rule, against old-age pensions and against a high-income tax. They admit the need of reforming the House of Lords, but insist that it be not deprived of its right of veto. Many of them are protectionists and advocate a high tariff, whereas the Liberals are all free-traders.

Minor Parties

The minor parties may be described briefly. The Laborites, as their name indicates, stand for the rights of labor as opposed to the rights of capital, and so they train, quite naturally, with the Liberals. The Redmond Nationalists preach home rule as their one and only doctrine and are willing to vote with any party which will give them its votes in return. The O’Brien Nationalists have much the same aims, but make war with the Redmondites over details. Such are the principal parties of the day in the United Kingdom.

The last House of Commons, which passed out of existence on November 28, when King George dissolved Parliament, was constituted as follows:



Irish Nationalists (Redmond wing)…..…71

Irish Nationalists (O’Brien wing)………..11


It thus appears that the Liberals were two votes ahead of their Unionist foes, and that, with the aid of the smaller groups, they could count upon a clear majority of 124. Even in case the Laborites and O’Brienites deserted them, they could still, it seemed, muster a majority, jointly with the Redmondites, of 22. This was the situation created by the general election held last January.

The Death Of The King

The House met for organization early in February, and the Liberal leaders at once proceeded to put through the program which the country had just approved at the polls. The principal feature of that program, or at least the one which appeared in the foreground, was the destructive reform of the House of Lords. The Lords, in the preceding Parliament, had presumed to hold up the socialistic revenue bills passed by the Commons, and for that contumacy they were to be severely punished. But difficulties began to appear straightway. The Irish members, knowing that they held the balance of power, demanded definite assurances of home rule for Ireland as the price of their support of the Liberal program, and the Laborites, not to be outdone, bobbed up with a long program of their own. The result was a heated and apparently hopeless wrangle, of which the alert Unionists took full advantage and which threatened to end in another dissolution and another appeal to the country.

Then came the death of Kind Edward, on May 6, and the famous Truce of God. By this truce the leaders of both sides agreed to put over the whole controversy until November, in order to avoid embarrassing the new King at the beginning of his reign. The agreement was kept faithfully all summer. Both parties refrained studiously from appeals to the electorate: even the newspapers avoided any reference to the matters at issue. Meanwhile the Liberal and Unionist chieftains met in formal conference and an effort was made to reach some agreement regarding the reform of the Lords.

The Unionists were willing to make concessions. While insisting that the upper chamber maintain its ancient right of veto, save in the matter of appropriation bills, they admitted that its powers should be greatly restricted otherwise and that there should be changes in the manner of selecting its membership. But when the truce ended, in November, it quickly became evident that these concessions were not enough to satisfy the Liberals. Just what the latter wanted did not appear. All that could be made of their demands was that they insisted upon dealing with the Lords as they pleased and without consulting the latter. The Unionists tried to smoke them out by introducing a compromise reform measure in the House of Lords itself. It was passed almost unanimously, many Liberal peers voting for it. But the Liberal leaders of the Commons, far from being impressed, made a game of it and appealed to the country.

The Liberals Win Again

The result of that appeal is in little doubt. The returns so far received show that the Liberals will rotate their majority in the next House, though it may be slightly smaller than it was before. But that they will be able to put through their program, whatever it now may be, is not so clear. They will still need the help of the Laborites and the Irish, and even if they get a radical reform measure through the Commons it will still have to run the gauntlet of the Lords, where, as we have seen, even the Liberal peers are lined up with their order.

No doubt the final move will be a demand upon King George that he create enough new peers, safely sworn to the Liberal cause, to overcome the present Unionist and recreant Liberal majority. If he consents, the aristocracy will be completely overthrown and the United Kingdom will become a thoroughgoing democracy. If he refuses, he himself may be overthrown. In either event, the result is sure to be the most startling and far-reaching change that England has seen for centuries.

(Source: University of North Texas, Microfilm Collection) 

The works of H.L. Mencken and other American journalists are now freely available at The Archive of American Journalism. Visit our bookstore for single-volume collections–-ideal for research, reference use or casual reading.